In 1993, I was a freshman in college. Bjork's debut album came out that summer. And Billy Joel's last. "Lawnmower Man" came out the year before, filling everyone with VR fears involving endless ringing telephones. "Jurassic Park's" genetics lab had a VR system. Even "Murder She Wrote" had a virtual reality scene in it. Even with "the Internet" still only on the horizon (dial-up AOL still ruled the land and there wasn't even a World Wide Web), it felt like we'd already hit peak VR.
Popular Science had an issue I snapped up right away. I don't remember where I bought it, but I read it and kept it stored away on my childhood bookshelf. I have it here at my desk, too. But I hadn't really read it before. So I read it over.
Its cover story by Michael Antonoff has plenty of exciting pictures of people all goggled into VR, and lots of anecdotes about the future and scientific applications. And what amazed me the most was how, if you showed people the first few paragraphs, I doubt you'd know it was written in 1993.
You can read the whole article here for yourself.
VR now is a lot different from VR then, of course: Today's Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and even the phone-based Gear VR are capable of graphics that would have made anyone's eyes pop out of their skulls back then. There wasn't anything like consumer VR in the 90s. Sega's hoped-for Sega VR system never arrived. Nintendo's Virtual Boy was just 3D gaming that played off the VR hype.
Finally, with "real" VR systems arriving in consumers' hands in just a few short weeks, the virtual reality moment is finally upon us. But there are a lot of things about VR 23 years ago that still feel the same.
Everyone lined up to experience exotic VR they've never tried before
The 1993 article begins by describing people lining up at the Mall of America to try a game that thrusts them into a brief, exciting event. It was Virtuality. Today, it might be HTC Vive or The Void. But few people tried VR back then, and few people have tried VR now. And to "get it," you really have to try it.
Headsets were expensive, and a game console maker promised a more affordable version
"Sega VR will sell for $200 -- considerably less than the thousands of dollars charged for professional HMDs, which are manufactured in limited quantities...pressing the buttons on a standard Genesis controller pad will move you forward, left right, backward, change your elevation, or fire a missile in the virtual world."
In 1993, Sega VR was everyone's great hope for affordable virtual reality. It never materialized. Now, there's the very real PlayStation VR on the horizon, which could cost less than more expensive PC-connected VR headsets. PlayStation VR will almost certainly cost more than $200, and the Vive and Oculus Rift cost less than "thousands" of dollars. But you get the idea.
The hardware looked weird on people's faces
Look at the screaming woman wearing VR in the 1993 story. Then look at the man using Oculus Rift in Time's 2015 story. Headwear still looks odd. Some of it may have gotten slightly shrunken down, but none of the current VR headsets look attractive. We still haven't gotten over the "stuff on our faces" phase of VR.
Expectations were through the roof
"Conferences and publications about virtual reality are as widespread now as those that rallied around the multimedia flag two years ago. If you believe the hype, virtual reality is virtually at your service already."
Antonoff was talking about the world of the 90s, and yet now we're surrounded by VR podcasts, conferences, Sundance festivals and press events. The hype back then was about VR actually becoming something real. Most people were dreaming of a cyberpunk-fueled "Neuromancer" or "Snow Crash"-style trip to the cyberspace/metaverse, with far-out magazines like Omni and Mondo 2000 ready to get wild and show us Timothy Leary-inspired virtual acid trips. But 1993's visions of VR also included virtual surgery, Mars missions (which we may already be getting) and banking (a description of Maxus Systems International boasts of "3D bar graphs" in some sort of geometric landscape).
Now, VR is absolutely real. Hardware exists that can make it work astoundingly well. But the hype has turned into a fever-dream of how our sense of reality will mutate. Will we cast ourselves into telepresence robots, or find ourselves blindered in a dystopic simulation? "The Matrix," "Black Mirror" and "Ready Player One" are our new dreams/nightmares. We still think VR will take over the world. Maybe it will.
"Body suit" levels of immersion are still a far-off fantasy
"Most people in the virtual reality community believe that a head-mounted display is the minimum point of entry. Although there has been much talk about bodysuit-fitted virtual reality, particularly in men's magazines, that level of immersion has yet to make it out of the laboratory."
Back in 1993, VR was mostly defined by that giant thing you wear on your head. In 2016, it still is. Amazingly, VR rigs in the 90s used by experimental labs often included "data gloves" for grabbing things. VR now is still stuck in a world of motion controllers, mostly, but hand-mapping depth-sensing cameras like Leap Motion and Xbox Kinect are already available to buy. Haptic accessories and extra wearable sensors, however, aren't standard now either.
VR is still growing
The end of Popular Science's cover story ends by looking back via a quote from "CyberEdge Journal" editor Ben Delaney: "Virtual reality is where personal computers were in '79. PCs back then were slow. They didn't do much. They crashed a lot. But you could start to see the promise. Ten years later everything was changed. Virtual reality may have a little longer gestation period, but it has the same potential."
23 years later, VR is still in its beginnings. "You're seeing the Pong version. These are early, early days," Ken Birdwell of Valve said to Time Magazine's Joel Stein in its August, 2015 cover story on VR. We're far, far further along than we were back then, but the horizon still stretches out. Sometimes, no matter how far you've come, there's always a brighter future ahead.
My 1993 self would have loved it. My 2016 self can't wait.